Technology experts have been tracking and forecasting the flexible OLED display market for years now, assessing the technology’s promise and potential for disrupting the consumer electronics market, and eagerly watching OEMs’ public demonstrations of early prototype flexible displays. And yet many of us would be surprised to learn that flexible OLED display technology has already arrived to the commercial marketplace – it may be in your pocket or strapped to your wrist right now.
Granted, the curved displays featured in Samsung Galaxy Edge smartphones and Apple Watches aren’t designed to be bendable by the end consumer. In the future, flexible OLED displays may be bendable, foldable, or even rollable, but today they are encapsulated in rigid protective glass and give us only a glimpse of what flexible OLED displays are capable of. Flexible OLED displays will differentiate a brand-new class of electronic devices and open a massive market opportunity for consumer electronics providers. Obvious target applications include smartphones, tablets, wearables and maybe also TVs, but new applications continue to emerge.
Photo courtesy: Samsung
So what’s slowing the adoption of flexible OLED displays in the mass market? Certainly, it’s not a lack of ambitious product designers racing to exploit this technology and get to market ahead of their competitors with flashy new flexible devices. The real reason why this technology has yet to be commoditized is because flexible OLED displays are extremely difficult to manufacture at scale.
With flexible OLED displays, there is increased manufacturing complexity which will negatively impact yield during early production stages, further adding to the technology’s initially higher expenses. It is a result of manufacturers grappling with a myriad of new variables – new materials, new design layers, and new processes – that end up driving up cost and impacting yield. And as is so often the case, yield rate is the deciding factor when it comes to calculating OEMs’ investment risks and profitability projections associated with nascent technology.
Manufacturing challenges abound
Whereas rigid LCD displays have benefitted from some 30 years of ongoing manufacturing process refinement, mass manufacturing of OLED displays only began in earnest in the last five years or so, and even more recently for flexible-based OLED. And again, these early displays are not the variety designed to be flexed by the end consumer. Glass-encapsulated displays – be they rigid or flexible – are fundamentally more durable, and offer a built-in protective layer for the underlying circuitry, so they are naturally easier to produce.